07th May2019

‘A Face in the Crowd’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Patricia Neal, Andy Griffith, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick | Written by Budd Schulberg | Directed by Elia Kazan


In a tiny Arkansas town, local radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) makes a visit to the local jailhouse to do a story on the inmates. She’s expecting anecdotes and maybe a song or two. What she finds is Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a bawdy and brilliantly charismatic drifter, who steals the show in any room he occupies.

Marcia offers Larry a slot on her radio station. He’s soon a local celebrity, whipping the locals into a frenzy, inciting them to take action against the mayor and his cronies. Via a calculating agent named Joey (Anthony Franciosa), Larry gains the attention of the big networks and advertisers. Before long he’s hit the big time, with his own show in New York, through which he sells pharmaceuticals to a national audience, mostly made up of excitable young females.

But where did the simple boy from Arkansas go? His appeal was always his simplicity; his ability to speak truth to power. As the commercial deals roll in, and as he begins to be “educated” on the value of wielding political influence, is this the same Larry who improvised simple blues to his fellow inmates? Once, he was just  A Face in the Crowd, plucked from obscurity like one of the lucky ones on his show. As his star rises, his face is everywhere – but Marcia isn’t sure she recognises it any more.

A Face in the Crowd came at the latter end of director Elia Kazan’s astonishing 1950s run, which included the likes of On the Waterfront (also written by Budd Schulberg), A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. Heavy with his signature angry, anti-establishment energy, this is Kazan’s Citizen Kane: a cautionary fable about the corrupting evil of rampant capitalism. It’s also a very human story about the way that, when guided by manipulative hands, an excess of personality can lead to a cult of personality.

The stages of Larry’s ascent (or descent, depending on your view) are clearly delineated: from busking to local radio; from innocuous product placement, through advertising, all the way to political influencing. What’s visually striking is the way this journey is one from rural freedom to urban oppression; from burning sunlight to plunging shadow. Kazan may be ambiguous about the cause of Larry’s tragic arc but he’s in no doubt that this is a system that will chew up the uninitiated and spit them out when they’re done serving its purpose.

The parallels with the YouTube generation of today are remarkably clear, specifically regarding the notion of authenticity. It’s not that Larry’s personality changes as such – indeed, it’s the basis of his ongoing popularity – but as his lust for more and more viewers increases, so too does his disconnection from the ordinary folk to whom he appeals. Larry was always an opportunist; always looking to better himself. But what becomes of a man when he’s handed the power and influence to truly believe he is better?

Marcia is anything but a mere passive love interest. She’s not there to mop the brow and straighten the tie of her celebrity lover, although this is precisely what Larry wishes her to be. When things go wrong, she’s the one to call to make things right. Marcia’s ambivalence is built on a horrible seesaw of resentment (for Larry’s possessive demands) and guilt (for having turned this Ordinary Joe into a power-hungry monster). Forget the naturalistic style of On the Waterfront; Neal and Griffith are outdoing each other in the melodrama stakes, going through scenery like it’s chewing tobacco. Only Walter Matthau, as Marcia’s long-suffering adorer, plays things down, in direct contrast to the lovers’ pyrotechnics.

A Face in the Crowd is an excellent entry in the “celebrity corrupts” subgenre. Swift and sharp and cynical, it’s a timeless fable that shares a through-line with the likes of Citizen Kane, Network and There Will Be Blood, and stands proudly alongside them.

Special Edition Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young
  • Trailer
  • Plus: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Andy Griffith

A Face in the Crowd is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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